rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have been obsessed with John D. Fitzgerald lately, but I think I may have found some closure after reading Papa Married a Mormon, his book about life in the Utah territories before and after statehood. It’s both the adult version and an antidote to the Great Brain books.
Fitzgerald was, of course, the author of several Great Brain books for children and the eponymous narrator of the books, J.D. Papa Married a Mormon is presented as fiction, but based on life. The Foreward describes the author’s promise to his mother that he will write the true story of the west, through tales of his family. There are even photographs of the family in the book.
A book like this published today could be a post-modern pastiche, like Kinky Friedman’s detective novels or J.G. Ballard’s Crash, both of which use the author’s name for the protagonist. This would be pretty unlikely in 1955 when the book was published, however. The novel is romantic and sentimental, seeing the goodness is nearly every character, but it is never boring. It also serves as the template for the Great Brain books that would come a decade later.
The same characters are there. Mama and Papa, of course, and older brothers Sweyn and Tom. Aunt Bertha, who wasn’t really their aunt, and Uncle Mark and Aunt Cathie also figure prominently. Even J.D.’s dog Brownie has a chapter devoted to him, although in this book he’s involved in a vicious dogfight. Older sister Katie is never mentioned in the Great Brain books, however.
Also missing in the Great Brain books is the looming presence of Will D. Fitzgerald. It’s clear why he isn’t in a children’s book. He’s Al Swearengen as embodied by Ian McShane on Deadwood – a nasty man who wins a saloon on a poker hand well aware that to make the deal conclusive, he’ll have to kill the previous owner. He takes a dancing girl named Queenie for a mistress and his personality has such gravity that the mining town of Silverlode seems to revolve around his Whitehorse Saloon.
Will also happens to be the explanation to a question I’ve had with every Great Brain book? Why did Tom Fitzgerald, patriarch of the family, come west? According to Papa, he came to fulfill a deathbed promise to his mother to watch over Will, the black sheep of the family.
The Great Brain books always include a paragraph within the first chapter that breaks down the religious demographics of the town of Adenville. Papa goes further and describes all the conflicts and intolerance that goes with religion, although, true to form, everyone learns that God is love and why would He be opposed to interfaith marriage or learning from one another?
Another question I have about the Great Brain is, who is Mark Trainor? J.D. calls him Uncle, but how were they related? In Papa, Trainor is the son of a Mormon bishop who loves his childhood friend, Tena Neilsen. When he realizes that she loves a Catholic, Tom Fitzgerald, Trainor is honorable enough to help them elope. His only admonition to Fitzgerald: “I’ll kill you if you ever hurt Tena or bring her any unhappiness.” The response: “I’d want it that way, Mark.” Later in the book, Mark marries Tom’s sister Cathie, another interfaith marriage.
The kids don’t really come into the story until more than half way, but then we find characters like “Dirty” Dawson. He seems to be the basis for “Britches” Dottie, the girl the Great Brain encourages to go to school, as well as Frankie Pennyworth, the orphaned boy the Fitzgeralds take in. In Papa, Dawson is being raised by his father, who drinks himself to death to forget the death of his wife.
And of course, there’s Tom. Even in this first novel, he refers to his Great Brain, although the schemes described tend to end with Tom’s punishment (although his father, Uncle Will and Mark often get a good laugh out of the mischief). I was surprised that Tom decides to reject Catholicism and become a Mormon. He goes on a mission to China and eventually marries Bishop Aden’s daughter. Not the ending I had imagined for the Great Brain!
Papa Married a Mormon is not a novel of ideas, but it is an entertaining yarn. And as an adjunct to the Great Brain books, it serves to fill out a picture of life in the old West.
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